Contemporary Southern Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Contemporary Southern Literature


Contemporary Southern Literature

Discussion of Southern literature in the United States usually begins with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and climaxes with the Southern Renascence authors who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s—such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and James Dickey, among others. The Renascence authors helped to define and solidify the image of Southern literature that still, in many respects, holds true today. Some of the hallmarks of this genre, as scholars have pointed out, are a concern with regionalism—with the geography, landscape, and local customs of the South; a respect for family, tradition, and history; and a particular fondness and talent for storytelling, whether through formal narrative or back-porch gossip. Interaction between Blacks and whites in the South also remains a key theme for many Southern writers, prompting continual reexamination of the relationship between the past and the present in their works. Because of their unique historic circumstance as natives of a slave-owning society defeated in the Civil War, “Southerners are always being asked to account for themselves,” as Welty has noted. The very question of what it means to be a Southern writer is a recurring theme in Southern literature, with authors exploring the possible advantages and limitations of regionalism, as well as analyzing the qualities that constitute a Southern writer in exile.

Contemporary Southern writers continue to incorporate many of these same themes into their works, but they have also branched out in new directions. As many writers have migrated to urban centers, they have written of traditional Southern values challenged in various ways, as Ted R. Spivey has commented, and they have written about Southerners' assimilation into the new environment. Julius Rowan Raper has theorized about a postmodern Southern sensibility among writers who are nourished by the sense of place that connects them to the South, yet are less and less defined by it. Whether or not they physically live in the South, such writers are the inheritors of many of its historical burdens. But the contemporary, especially material, consumer culture, has also gained a foothold in the South. Bobbie Ann Mason's characters, for example, immerse themselves in pop culture gleaned in television programs, searching for meaning and relevance to their own lives. Cormac McCarthy's novels offer a critique of a failed white Southern culture, as the characters in his novels often retreat to exotic locales in search of more meaningful values. Still other writers, like Sonia Sanchez, fully embrace urban culture, while also being influenced by a rural Southern upbringing. Narrative and storytelling—either written, oral, passed from generation to generation, or from woman to woman—also remains an important facet of contemporary Southern literature. Scholars have frequently written about this aspect of the writings of Lee Smith, Fannie Flagg, and Josephine Humphreys, among other writers, as a particularly characteristic Southern trait. Whether overtly feminist, like the writing of Rita Mae Brown, or writing that deals with the daily interactions of ordinary women, women's narratives have become a strong force in Southern literature. Critics like Angelina Godwin Dvorak, Barbara Bennett, and Peggy Whitman Prenshaw have written about the recurring examinations of women in the South by Southern writers—for example, about the role of food and cooking in their lives; about their use of humor as a survival tactic and as social criticism; and about the sense of strength that Southern women derive from and impart to each other.

Representative Works

Rita Mae Brown
Rubyfruit Jungle (novel) 1973
Southern Discomfort (novel) 1982

James Dickey
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992 (poetry) 1992

Clyde Edgerton
Walking across Egypt (novel) 1987

Fannie Flagg
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (novel) 1987

Ernest Gaines
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel) 1971
A Lesson before Dying (novel) 1993

Shirley Ann Grau
The Black Prince and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
Evidence of Love (novel) 1977
Nine Women (short stories) 1985

Allan Gurganus
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (novel) 1989

Josephine Humphreys
Dreams of Sleep (novel) 1984
Rich in Love (novel) 1987
The Fireman's Fair (novel) 1991

Bobbie Ann Mason
Shiloh and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
In Country (novel) 1985

Peter Matthiessen
Killing Mister Watson (novel) 1990

Cormac McCarthy
Suttree (novel) 1979
All the Pretty Horses (novel) 1982
Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Reddens in the West (novel) 2001

Larry McMurtry
The Last Picture Show (novel) 1969

Toni Morrison
Beloved (novel) 1987

Walker Percy
Lancelot (novel) 1977

Sonia Sanchez
Homecoming (poetry) 1967
Sister Son/ji (drama) 1969

Lee Smith
Black Mountain Breakdown (novel) 1981
Oral History (novel) 1983

William Styron
The Confessions of Nat Turner (novel) 1967

Peter Taylor
Summons to Memphis (novel) 1986

Anne Tyler
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (novel) 1982

Alice Walker
The Color Purple (novel) 1982

Eudora Welty
One Writer's Beginnings (lectures) 1984
The Optimist's Daughter (novella) 1984


Eudora Welty (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Welty, Eudora. “Place and Time: The Southern Writer's Inheritance.1Mississippi Quarterly 50, no. 4 (fall 1997): 545-51.

[In the following essay, first published in 1954, Welty discusses some general characteristics of Southern literature and praises the work of such modern novelists as William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Peter Taylor.]

As this was being written, the new book by William Faulkner is about to come out in America—a long novel entitled A Fable. One never knows ahead what a new work by Mr. Faulkner will be like—that is one of the joys of living contemporaneously with a genius. Now in the prime of his life, in the mid-fifties, he may well be giving us his major work; the talk is that he himself has an inkling that this is so. We shall have it here before long, and meanwhile the American critics are all giving cry. They ought to know by now, though, that Faulkner's work is a whole, that cannot be satisfactorily analysed and accounted for, until it can be predicted—Lord save the day. That prose is indestructibly itself and alive, something passionate and uncompromising, that will never sit still and wait on what anybody thinks; it will never be a possum in the tree. It sheds its light from higher up than any of the boys can shoot it down.

In the present surge of writers coming out of the South, Faulkner is the Man—pride and joy and show piece. Still, Mr. Edmund Wilson has put himself on record as wondering why on earth Mr. Faulkner doesn't quit all this local stuff and come out of the South to write in civilization. He asks how writing like that can possibly come out of some little town in Mississippi. The marvellous thing is that such writing comes. Let Mr. Wilson try calling for some in another direction, and see how long it takes. Such writing does not happen often, anywhere.

In America, Southerners are always being asked to account for themselves in general; it's a national habit. If they hold themselves too proud, or let themselves go too quickly, to give a reasonable answer, it does not really matter—at least it does not matter to the Southerners. Now that the “Southern Renaissance” is a frequent term, and they are being asked to account for that, some try and others just go on writing. In one little Mississippi town on the river, seventeen authors are in the national print and a Pulitzer Prize winner edits the paper. It is also true that nobody is buying books in that town, or generally in the South. It seems that when it comes to books they are reading the old ones and writing the new ones. Southerners are, indeed, apart from and in addition to the giant Faulkner, writing a substantial part of the seriously considered novels, stories and poems of the day in America, and the most interesting criticism. One might just think that they are good at writing, and let it go at that.

There has always been a generous flow of writing to come out of the South. One can begin with Poe and come up through George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, James Branch Cabell, Julia Peterkin, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Stark Young, William Alexander Percy, and so on—there are many more. Before the famous Southern Review of the thirties there were two previous Southern Reviews, the first published more than a hundred years earlier in Charleston. There was the Southern Literary Messenger, to which Poe contributed, and there was, and still is, the South Atlantic Quarterly, which has been going on in Durham, N. C., for the last fifty years, with many creditable pieces in it, as Dr. W. B. Hamilton's recently published collection from it has made plain. There has been a high standard of journalism in the South, not everywhere, but continuously somewhere; one thinks of it as a tradition out of which came historians and critics like Herbert Agar, who edited the Louisville Courier before coming to England; of Virginius Dabney in Richmond, and of Hodding Carter in Greenville, Miss., the aforementioned Pulitzer prize winner.

It is nothing new or startling that Southerners do write—probably they must write. It is the way they are: born readers and reciters, great document holders, diary keepers, letter exchangers and savers, history tracers—and, outstaying the rest, great talkers. Emphasis in talk is on the narrative form and the verbatim conversation, for which time is needed. Children who grow up listening through rewarding stretches of unhurried time, reading in big lonely rooms, dwelling in the confidence of slow-changing places, are naturally more prone than other children to be entertained from the first by life and to feel free, encouraged, and then in no time compelled, to pass their pleasure on. They cannot help being impressed by a world around them where history has happened in the yard or come into the house, where all round the countryside big things happened and monuments stand to the memory of fiery deeds still to be heard from the lips of grandparents, the columns in the field or the familiar cedar avenue leading uphill to nothing, where such-and-such a house once stood. At least one version of an inextinguishable history of everybody and his grandfather is a community possession, not for a moment to be forgotten—just added to, with due care, mostly. The individual is much too cherished as such for his importance ever to grow diminished in a story. The rarity in a man is what is appreciated and encouraged.

All through their lives Southerners are thus brought up, without any occasion to give it wonder, to be intimate with, and observant of, the telling detail in a life that is changing ever so slowly—like a garden in a season—and is reluctant to be changing at all. Without the conscious surmise of how they may have come to find it out, they do habitually find out how to be curious and aware, and perhaps compassionate and certainly prejudiced, about the stories that can be watched in the happening, all the way—lifelong and generation-long stories. They are stories watched and participated in, if not by one member of the family, then without a break by another, allowing the continuous recital to be passed along in its full course—memory and event and the comprehension of it and being part of it scarcely marked off from one another in the present glow of hearing it again, telling it, feeling it, knowing it. Someday somebody is liable to write it, although nobody is quite so likely to read it. The main thing Southern writers learn is that the story, whatever it is, is not incredible. Of course, that is what they wind up being charged with—stark incredibility. Faulkner is all true—he is poetically the most accurate man alive, he has looked straight into the heart of the matter and got it down for good.

One thing Yoknapatawpha County has demonstrated is that deeper down than people, farther back than history, there is the Place. All Southerners must have felt that they were born somewhere in its story, and can see themselves in line. The South was beautiful as a place, things have happened to it, and it is beautiful still—sometimes to the eye, often to the memory; and beyond any doubt it has a tearing beauty for the vision of the Southern writer, in whose work Place is seen with Time walking on it—dramatically, portentously, mourningly, in ravishment, in remembrance, as the case may be—though without the humour this writing is full of, where would it be? It is a rural land, not industrialized yet—so that William Faulkner can still go out and get his...

(The entire section is 3126 words.)

Ted R. Spivey (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Spivey, Ted R. “The City and the Quest for Cultural Values.” In Revival: Southern Writers in the Modern City, pp. 12-37. Gainsville: University Presses of Florida, 1986.

[In the following essay, Spivey presents an overview of the role of the city in Southern life and the Southern literary imagination, noting that the South has traditionally—and mistakenly—been regarded as an agricultural society.]

Like literary artists throughout Western civilization, many southern writers in the early twentieth century went to large cities to practice their art in order to escape increasing narcissistic and solipsistic tendencies in the provinces. To a greater extent...

(The entire section is 10996 words.)

Julius Rowan Raper (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Raper, Julius Rowan. “Inventing Modern Southern Fiction: A Postmodern View.” Southern Literary Journal 22, no. 2 (spring 1990): 3-18.

[In the following essay, Raper explores the special role of a sense of place in traditional Southern fiction and suggests that postmodern Southern writers have deliberately reacted against their locale as a limitation in their works.]

The possibility I want to explore,1 that in modern Southern literature the sense of place takes on a role better played by a sense of self, arises from my irritation with a popular anthology of modern Southern short stories. The anthology, Stories of the Modern South, is a...

(The entire section is 6897 words.)

John Lowe (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lowe, John. Introduction to The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, pp. 3-19. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lowe discusses new directions in contemporary Southern fiction, including a reexamination of history, a more central treatment of popular culture, and a greater presence of women authors.]

It is never, as one knows, the subject, but only the
treatment that distinguishes the artist and poet.

Friedrich Schiller, “On Matthison's Poems” (1794)

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We're too dumb to make it in no northern...

(The entire section is 7947 words.)

Ernest Suarez (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Suarez, Ernest. “Toward a New Southern Poetry: Southern Poetry in Contemporary American Literary History.” Southern Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1997): 181-96.

[In the following essay, Suarez examines the poetry of James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren as representative of the modern South, pointing out that their poetry is both regional and highly individual.]

Robert Penn Warren's and James Dickey's verse published since the mid-1950s provides a basis for reevaluating the history not only of southern poetry but of contemporary American poetry. During the '50s, Warren and Dickey developed approaches that neither historical field has been able fully to...

(The entire section is 5578 words.)

Anthony Bukoski (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Bukoski, Anthony. “The Burden of Home: Shirley Ann Grau's Fiction.” Critique 28, no. 4 (summer 1987): 181-93.

[In the following essay, Bukoski discusses Shirley Ann Grau's fiction in terms of her “home-consciousness”—her use of interior spaces, houses, and dispossession to develop theme and characterization.]

In Shirley Ann Grau's fiction, houses provide a loci for the psychological and emotional lives of families.1 Her fictional houses alienate, however, when they become representative of the failure of the family to provide direction to its members. This, I believe, partly answers the critics who see in Grau's work the “absence of …...

(The entire section is 6677 words.)

Joanne Veal Gabbin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Gabbin, Joanne Veal. “The Southern Imagination of Sonia Sanchez.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, pp. 180-203. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gabbin focuses on the literary career of Sonia Sanchez, stressing her blending of political and personal, urban and rural elements in her works.]

Death is a five o'clock door forever changing time. And wars end. Sometimes too late. I am here. Still in Mississippi. Near the graves of my past. We are at peace … I have my sweet/astringent memories because we dared to pick up the day and shake its tail until it became evening. A time for us....

(The entire section is 8931 words.)

Harriette C. Buchanan (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Buchanan, Harriette C. “Lee Smith: The Storyteller's Voice.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, pp. 324-44. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Buchanan presents an overview of Lee Smith's career, praising her talent as a natural storyteller, her flexibility in handling point of view, and her mixing of the comic and the tragic in her works.]

“What I'm trying to do all the time is just tell a story.”1 So saying, Lee Smith modestly, or perhaps disingenuously, backs away from the complexity and richness of her narratives about life in the small-town South. Seen in context, that statement sheds...

(The entire section is 9876 words.)

Angeline Godwin Dvorak (essay date winter-spring 1992)

SOURCE: Dvorak, Angeline Godwin. “Cooking as Mission and Ministry in Southern Culture: The Nurturers of Clyde Edgerton's Walking across Egypt, Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, and Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.Southern Quarterly 30, nos. 2-3 (winter-spring 1992): 90-8.

[In the following essay, Dvorak explores the role of cooking as it relates to a sense of community, spiritual sustenance, women's friendships, and female identity in three Southern novels.]

The table spread with culinary delights easily triggers images of home, hearth and familial companionship. In southern culture, especially, food...

(The entire section is 4533 words.)

Jan Nordby Gretlund (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Gretlund, Jan Nordby. “Josephine Humphreys's New Southerner.” In Frames of Southern Mind: Reflections on the Stoic, Bi-Racial & Existential South, pp. 219-30. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, first published in 1996, Gretlund discusses Josephine Humphreys's existentialism as seen through the choices her characters make in their daily lives and in particular Southern locales.]

In his book on Space and Place Yi-Fu Tuan argues that place is different from space due to “locational qualities” associated with the contemplation of place.1 From his mentioning of “the security and stability” of...

(The entire section is 5439 words.)

John G. Cawelti (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Cawelti, John G. “Cormac McCarthy: Restless Seekers.” In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 164-76. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cawelti presents an overview of Cormac McCarthy's career, stressing that his works connect the new Western and the new Southern literature genres through a concern for a sense of the failure of white American culture.]

Southerners have a favorite set of self-images involving associations with stability, tradition, and dedication to local communities, all the symbology of “down-home.” But in fact the South was founded by a horde...

(The entire section is 6056 words.)

Laura Fine (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Fine, Laura. “Going Nowhere Slow: The Post-South World of Bobbie-Ann Mason.” Southern Literary Journal 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 87-97.

[In the following essay, Fine asserts that the Southern locale itself is tangential to Bobbie Ann Mason's fiction and that she concentrates instead on her characters' search for meaning in the wider context of pop culture.]

In his 1930 story “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner depicts a South in painful transition. The Old South, with its history of slavery, racism, and cruelty masked by a genteel front, battles the forces of the New South, mercantile, unconcerned with beauty. In Flannery O'Connor's stories, the South is...

(The entire section is 4458 words.)

Martha Chew (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Chew, Martha. “Rita Mae Brown: Feminist Theorist and Southern Novelist.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, pp. 195-213. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

[In the following essay, Chew presents an overview of Rita Mae Brown's novels and essays, focusing on her political consciousness and her treatment of social class and categories in her novels.]

Rita Mae Brown is known both for her political writing, which consists of the essays that came out of her activism as a lesbian feminist in the late sixties and early seventies and were collected in A Plain Brown Rapper (1976); and for her fiction,...

(The entire section is 7513 words.)

Barbara Bennett (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Bennett, Barbara. “Introduction: Southern Laughter and the Woman Writer.” In Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor, pp. 1-15. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Bennett explores the role of humor in Southern literature, particularly as it relates to women writers, focusing on the idea that humor offers a challenge to the status quo.]

Laughter I declare to be blessed; you who aspire to greatness, learn how to laugh!

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Being humorous in the South is like being...

(The entire section is 6628 words.)

Patricia Yaeger (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Yaeger, Patricia. “Beyond the Hummingbird: Southern Women Writers and the Southern Gargantua.” In Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, pp. 287-318. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

[In the following essay, Yaeger discusses Southern women writers' frequent use of physically grotesque characters in their works and emphasizes the latter's political role in “mapping an entire region's social and psychic neuroses.”]


This is an essay with an agenda. I want to describe the political effects of the grotesque in southern women's fiction since it...

(The entire section is 13323 words.)

Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman. “The Construction of Confluence: The Female South and Eudora Welty's Art.” In The Late Novels of Eudora Welty, edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp, pp. 176-94. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Prenshaw examines the role of women, particularly mothers and daughters, in the fiction of Eudora Welty, noting that she depicts Southern women as a source of strength and spiritual healing in her works.]

In the headnote that opens One Writer's Beginnings Eudora Welty describes her parents on a typical morning in her early childhood. Her father is shaving, preparing to leave...

(The entire section is 8097 words.)

Further Reading


Brinkmeyer, Jr., Robert H. “Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 20-33.

Brinkmeyer characterizes Mason's probing of history in her novels as a typically Southern concern.

Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood. “‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch’: Violating Traditions in Bastard out of Carolina.Southern Folklore 55, no. 2 (1998): 133-44.

Donlon discusses Dorothy Allison's novel and the ways in which Allison uses the symbol of the front porch to show that the main character, Bone, “operates outside of...

(The entire section is 908 words.)